On covering women’s sports … and more

What happened to Missy Franklin last night? How did the reigning Olympic 100-meter backstroke champion, just hitting her athletic peak at age 21, finish seventh in the U.S. Olympic Trials in that event?

I found no answers at Excelle Sports, where the writer who covered Monday night’s action in the pool has a story today on a Dartmouth grad who’s training to represent Greece in the Olympic distance running events. The lead stories at Excelle this morning: More on the death of Pat Summitt, a first-person Wimbledon memory by Rennae Stubbs, a feature on the Seattle Reign’s Havana Solaun, and Brittney Griner’s thoughts on the media.

The great @vandey01 got this picture of the cozy crowd with WPS CEO Anne-Marie Eileraas in 2011. Bottom left: Jeff Kassouf shooting video.

How about espnW? Wimbledon leads. The Olympic swim trials are high on the home page, but it’s from Monday’s competition, focusing on Katie Ledecky. The next story on the page is on American Ninja Warrior. Further down the page, we see Maria Sharapova going to Harvard Business School and a feature on Allyson Felix’s musical favorites.

Oddly enough, the mainstream media produced plenty of coverage on Missy Franklin. USA TODAY’s Nicole Auerbach has quotes from the swim star on dealing with pressure. ESPN’s Wayne Drehs goes into a bit more depth, chronicling Franklin’s struggles with back spasms and World Championship disappointment over the past couple of years. At The New York Times, Karen Crouse adds context of other swimmers who had one big Olympics and then either stepped away or faded.

None of this is to fault the coverage of the dedicated women’s sports sites, though I have to think someone has simply forgotten to update espnW’s home page with Drehs’ report from Tuesday night. Their lead stories are worthwhile reads in their own right.

The point is that covering the undercovered sports, whether it’s women’s basketball or men’s track and field, is a complex task. Or maybe I’m just feeling schizophrenic because I’m working up a piece on The Year of the Woman (Again) at the Olympics and wondering why few people have heard of Christian Taylor or even Ashton Eaton, and at the same time, I’m listening to a thoughtful Mixxed Zone podcast with Jen Cooper discussing women’s sports coverage with Excelle’s Howard Megdal.

I’ve been where Howard is, quite literally. I’ve been the lone reporter getting postgame quotes, and I’ve made an effort to write about a game with 200 people in attendance as if it were attended by 2,000. I got to know several Duke women’s basketball players back in the days before Duke hired Gail Goestenkors and gave her a real budget that paid off with Final Four runs and much bigger crowds.

I’d like to think that, more than 25 years after rattling around in Cameron Indoor Stadium with a handful of people watching my classmates battle All-Americans Dawn Staley, Andrea Stinson and Vicky Bullett, I’d have some answers about how to get people to pay attention where they aren’t.

I do not.

When I left USA TODAY, I launched a blog called SportsMyriad. The idea was to write about sports in an inverse ratio of how much they were covered elsewhere. I’d write about men’s soccer, which was still undercovered at the time, but I’d write more about women’s soccer. And I’d produce a steady stream of coverage on Olympic sports, because I wouldn’t have editors telling me to cut it out and work up that Belmont Stakes graphic.

What I found is that it’s impossible for one person to do that. One reason is the simple tyranny of time. Another is that it’s difficult to turn down freelance work that pays actual money so I can focus on a blog that might get enough Google ad money to pay for its own hosting.

Another is this, and it applies to journalists as well as fans:

We all have our favorites.

I can’t make women’s soccer fans pay attention to Allyson Felix or Marti Malloy. Just as I can’t make NFL fans pay attention to Aries Merritt or David Boudia.

Nor can I claim to be an expert on everything. I’ve seen Olympic diving and fencing live, and I have no idea how judges can figure out what’s going on. I’ve watched more curling than 99.9% of the U.S. population, but I still struggle to understand the tactics at times.

So SportsMyriad essentially became a clearinghouse for the sports I knew in at least a little bit of detail. Soccer, particularly women’s and youth soccer. MMA. Curling.

Then within those sports, we have some questions to ask, including the elephant in the room:

Are we willing to take negative coverage as well as positive? Is it OK to point out Marta’s gamesmanship? Or to ask whether the U.S. women’s soccer team is taking a counterproductive stance in labor talks that may hurt the sport in the long run?

It’s not an easy question, and my experience is that athletes in undercovered sports — women or men — tend to be a little more guarded in speaking with reporters. If you ask about a confrontation in the midst of an NWSL game, you’re likely to hear that the players are content to leave it on the field. In investigating the mysterious magicJack team in WPS, I spoke separately with a couple of players and got the same scripted response. Verbatim. It was like talking to robots.

Sometimes, they’ll go off script and have colorful conversations. I did an interview series for USA TODAY that tried to go beyond the typical questions. In speaking with a biathlete/cross-country skier: “The first paper you’re credited with publishing, according to your bio at Wyoming, is ‘Multiple Neoglacial Advances Recognized in Sierra Nevada Rock Glaciers.’ Did that paper help with your cross-country training?” A water polo player talked with me about the nasty stuff that happens under water. (In this case, it’s a pretty significant difference between the men’s and women’s game.)

I think the stories are there, in women’s sports and Olympic sports. It’s a nice change of pace from the daily speculation on whether Kevin Love wants to remain in Cleveland as a rebounding role player or go to a lesser team where he’s the “star.”

But part of it is far out of my hands, or Howard’s, or Jen’s. It’s TV production.

U.S. broadcasters have always treated the Olympics as a Very Big Deal. Doesn’t matter if the athletes are men or women. Sometimes, it doesn’t even matter if the athletes are American — Nadia Comeneci captured the USA’s imagination long before she married U.S. gymnast Bart Conner.

Look at the English Premier League. A few years ago, it was just tossed on TV for the benefit of hard-core soccer fans. Fox Soccer Channel made an effort to make it bigger. NBC went even bigger than that, with clever advertising and professional studio shows that turned even the most humdrum midtable clashes into events.

How would the NWSL fare if a network put that sort of emphasis into a Dash-Flash game?

So we need Excelle Sports. We need SwimSwam.com, which has detailed coverage of the winners and losers in the Olympic trials as well as the unfortunate news that a coach was fired after his arrest on charges of soliciting prostitution. We need NBC, which brings its quality TV production and bloggers to the fore.

And we have to accept that we can’t all support everything. I simply can’t devote as much attention to the WNBA that I devote to the NWSL. I have to remind myself that I can’t make everyone read my story on the woman who is fighting for the right to walk 50 kilometers. (But seriously — read it. It’s a good story.)

It’s going to take group efforts. Maybe someone will actually pounce on the idea of an Excelle Sports for Olympic sports. (Believe me, I’ve pitched it.)

And it’ll take mutual respect along with frank talk. We can’t just yell at journalists who aren’t covering our favorite undercovered sports. Most of them are just trying to cling to jobs at the moment, given the sea changes in the newspaper and cable industries.

We have to create the communities so fans and journalists can engage. We have to have the confidence that these communities can grow even when we disagree.

And we have to make it fun! The people trying to turn soccer into a dour experience may kill the sport in this country. Let’s not make that mistake with women’s sports or Olympic sports.

Especially curling.

Honestly, I don’t even know if this is me. But it is indeed from my one night of curling (so far).

Published by

Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

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